The Gibson Girls: The Kardashians of the Early 1900s

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Forget about Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney. At the turn of the twentieth century, it was all about Evelyn, Camille, and Irene, the original "Gibson Girls" and the models for the drawings that changed the way America thought about women.

Though the 1890s may seem buttoned up by modern standards, they were anything but. Independent, well-read, and urbane, a new class of woman was emerging in America's cities. This "New Woman" did not care to be chaperoned in public. She was athletic and free-spirited. Above all, she was educated, taking advantage of new access to secondary school and college.

She was also scary. By the 1890s, the reform fervor of suffragists and their sisters had ceased to be cute and started to be all too real. The status quo was being challenged by Progressive politics, new divorce laws, and women who chose to work outside the home. Charles Dana Gibson, a popular illustrator, looked down on reform zeal in women. And so he created "the Gibson girl," a catch-all representation of a kinder, gentler New Woman—one who rode bikes, wore casual clothing, and flaunted her attitude, but was above all beautiful and anonymous. By the 1910s, to visit Gibson's office was to push your way through hundreds of gorgeous models with big hair and small waists, each vying for a go as one of Gibson's girls.

If ever there was a figure that expressed ambiguity about its subject, it was the Gibson Girl. Gibson's creations poked men with pins and looked at them under magnifying glasses, towered over infatuated suitors, and even played golf—all while rocking gigantic pompadours and chignons, crisp shirtwaists and impeccably corseted hips. You wouldn't see her at a settlement house or a suffrage rally, but you might spot her by the Ouija board or by the sea, working her hose and bathing costume with all of the self-conscious hauteur of a Kim K. selfie.

"Wear a blank expression/and a monumental curl/And walk with a bend in your back/Then they will call you a Gibson Girl." Camille Clifford, a Belgian songbird, sang this tune with great irony in 1907, long after she won an international magazine contest in search of the woman who best embodied Gibson's girl. Known for her 18-inch waist and her signature walk, she took the theatrical world by storm without benefit of acting skills or much more than the rumor that she had eloped with a British lord. She can also be blamed for the high-maintenance fashion craze that was the S-curve, an overtly sensuous look achieved by a corset laced nearly to the knees.

Evelyn Nesbit, another one of Gibson's models, boasted of a career that started as the first supermodel and ended with the first "trial of the century" of the 1900s. Like many others, Gibson was entranced by her luxurious, over-the-top hair, which he molded into a question mark for one of the most famous Gibson Girl drawings, entitled "Woman: The Eternal Question." A recent book claims that a photograph of Evelyn even inspired Lucy Maud Montgomery to write Anne of Green Gables.

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Evelyn appeared on magazine covers, pouted as a "Florodora girl," and was eventually seduced by notorious womanizer Stanford White, who infamously placed her on a red velvet swing in his apartment so he could admire her before deflowering her. Eventually, she married millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw, who shot White to death after spotting him at Madison Square Garden. The trial that ensued put O.J. Simpson's to shame, with wall-to-wall tabloid coverage and a deadlocked jury. After her husband was convicted, Evelyn went on to work in silent films, burlesque, and even operated her own Prohibition-era speakeasy.

Ironically, the least famous of the Gibson Girls was probably the original, and Irene Langhorne Gibson was far closer to the independent New Woman than her husband liked to admit. Known for her supermodel looks and her Virginia fortune, Irene fended off plenty of proposals before falling in love with Gibson. But though her tall stature and haughty, almost arrogant looks inspired her husband, Irene was far more noteworthy for her passion for Progressive politics. Her philanthropic efforts helped troubled women and children, and her ability to use her society connections effected real change. While Gibson turned women back into Girls, Irene quietly and tirelessly showed just what a woman could achieve. 

Additional References: The Bystander: An Illustrated Weekly, Devoted to Travel, Literature, Art, the Drama, Progress, Locomotion, Volume 12; Dress Culture in Late Victorian Women's Fiction: Literacy, Textiles, and Activism; Gibson Girls and Suffragists: Perceptions of Women from 1900 to 1918; The American New Woman Revisited: A Reader, 1894-1930; Early College Women: Determined to be Educated; Nancy: The Story of Mary Astor; Encyclopedia Virginia: Irene Langhorne Gibson; Leslie Stuart: Composer of Florodora; American Eve; Looking for Anne of Green Gables: The Story of L. M. Montgomery and Her Literary Classic

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September 17, 2014 - 12:00am
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